Beyond limits

We always hope our teachers remember us, and most of the time they recognize our faces even if our name doesn't immediately spring to mind. We want them to remember our intelligence and our accomplishments. We want to make an impression for the good things we did. But we sometimes it's our struggles that they remember most.

Athenian turned fifty this year. We celebrated with jubilant reunions, iconic photography, and wine. In the fifteen years since I graduated, my AWE instructor, the one I liked, had become co-head of the program. My group had been her first introduction to us.

"I don't know if you remember me. I was in your AWE group ages ago."

"Death Valley?"

"Sierras, 1999."

"You were the one that cried weren't you! I tell that story all the time!"

How embarrassing. My AWE instructor remembers me for breaking down on the trail the second or third day out. To her credit, she tells the story as an example of what happens when co-instructors are not one the same page, and how important communication is.

Forty-eight hours earlier we'd hugged our parents and friends goodbye and boarded a bus to the trailhead. Our packs were filled with food, clothes, tarps, and cooking supplies. There were ten of us, irritable, tired, teenagers and two instructors. The first night we had camped by a green lake.

“I could live out here,” I’d said, meaning the place, not the lifestyle.

The course was supposed to easy us into backpacking: four miles that first day, six the next, until we built up the strength and stamina to go as much as ten miles a day with sixty pounds on our sixteen year-old backs. But we were already a fast group, we just wanted to camp and relax. 

Because we were fast we got to our camping spot early that day. Tony was not pleased. He wanted to push us harder. 

“There’s this lake that I’ve always wanted to see,” he said. “It’s not far, just over that hill.”

“I don’t know,” Phoebe said.

“It’ll be great,” Tony replied as he walked off.

We trailed behind, Pheobe in the back. When we crested the hill there was still more trail.

“Just over the next hill,” Tony said.

We continued in silence. Weren't we supposed to be starting slow? Just when we thought we were done there was still more hill. Up and up we trudged with no end in sight. My pack was heavy and crooked. My feet hurt in my stiff hiking boots, the ones I was supposed to have broken in, but hadn’t. Blisters were starting to form. I was hot, uncomfortable, and tired. Hiking had never been something I’d enjoyed, but backpacking was even worse. About an hour into it I sat down and cried. My classmates looked around nervously. I had been the first one to break.

“Tony, I don’t think we should be taken them this far, it’s too early,” Phoebe said.

“It’s not a successful trip until someone cries,” Tony replied. “Just over this hill.”

He started walking.

“We’ll catch up,” Phoebe said as she sat down next to me and put her arm around my shoulder.

My classmates slowly followed Tony. Eventually I did as well. Seven miles later we saw Tower Lake in front of us and dropped our packs.

“Wasn’t this worth it?” Tony said, looking out onto blue water and the mountains surrounding us.

We said nothing. It was the beginning of our shared hatred.

Asha SundararamanComment